Sunday, February 14, 2021

South Florida's 'Saltwater Railroad' to Freedom

 By Bob Davidsson

        For more than 40 percent of Florida's population living in slavery during the early 19th century, the paths to freedom converged along the coastline of the Palm Beaches and led south to Cape Florida, where a dangerous voyage across the Florida Straits was rewarded with sancutary in the Bahamas.

        Located at the southern end of Key Biscayne is the "Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park." Between the years 1821-61 the historic site was a secret meeting place for escaped slaves and Black Seminoles awaiting sea transport to the safety of the Bahamas.

       In September 2004, Cape Florida was designated as a "National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site." The park also is the site of the the historic Cape Florida Lighthouse, first completed in 1825.

       The lighthouse was a beacon guiding Bahamian fishing boats and abolitionist sailing vessels to Key Biscayne, where escaped slaves could gain passage to the British island chain.

        The "Underground Railroad" network, extending from southern slave states to Canada, was the well-documented road to freedom operated by abolitionists and freed African-Americans. It also had a lesser-known southern branch called the "Southern Underground Railroad," or more commonly the "Saltwater Railroad," along the southeast coast of Florida with an overseas route to the Bahamas.

        Slavery has a long history in Florida, but during its historical timeline the state was a sanctuary in the 18th century and offered a path to freedom in the early 19th century for its most oppressed population.

Slavery and Freedom in Spanish Florida: 1565-1821

        African slaves arrived with the fleet of Spanish colonists when the Adelantado Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded the City of St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565. A census conducted in 1602 by Florida Governor Gonzalo Mendez de Canco recorded 52 slaves living in the colonial city.

        Between the years 1672 and 1695, African slaves and mission Indian laborers built the Castillo de San Marcos out of coquina stone. The historic fortress is the oldest permanent structure in Florida.

        Unlike instiutionalized slavery in the English colonies to the north, Spanish laws allowed slaves to marry, own property and purchase their freedom through contractual agreements with their owners. As a result, St. Augustine had a diverse population of European colonists, native Americans, and both free African-Americans and slaves.

        On Nov. 7, 1693, King Charles II of Spain issued a royal decree providing sanctuary and protection in Florida to escaped slaves from the English colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas. Escaping slaves could request permanent asylum and Spanish citizenship in Florida by accepting baptism in the Catholic Church, enlisting in the local militia, and obeying the laws of Spain.

       The "King's Edict" to Florida Governor Laureano de Torres y Ayala (1693-99) states, "As a prize for having adopted the Catholic doctrine and become Catholicized, as soon as you receive this letter, set them all free and give them anything they need, and favor them as much as possible."

        "I hope this to be an example, together with my generosity  of what others should do," the King's letter concluded. "I want to be notified of the following of my instructions as soon as possible."

       To no surprise, Spain's lenient policy resulted in an influx of escaped slaves to Florida from  neighboring English colonies, and ongoing political tension between Spain and England. The issue of Florida's sanctuary policy for slaves was inherited by the United States when it gained its independence in 1783.

Florida's Freedom Trail by Land and Sea: 1821-61

        The United States purchased Florida from Spain for $5 million as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1821. Florida became a U.S. territory on March 10, 1821. Spain's tolerant sanctuary policy for slaves was scrapped by the new territorial government.

        A series of "Black Codes"  (Article XVI) were codified in the Florida Constitution of 1838. The article prohibited the territorial General Assembly from passing laws to emancipate slaves.

        A plantation system was established in northern Florida as far south as the Suwannee River along the west coast and the upper St. Johns River near the eastern coastline. Central and southern Florida was the domain of the Seminole nation and a few scattered military outposts.

       On March 3, 1845, Florida was admitted as the 21st state of the Union. It joined the United States as a slave state.

        By the year 1860, Florida had a population of  about 140,000 persons. Of this total, 61,475 were African-American slaves. There were only 700 black Freedmen living in Florida, mainly in the cities of Key West, Jacksonville and Pensacola.

        The Saltwater Railroad to freedom was created by abolitionists and native Bahamians, with the tacit approval of the British government in Nassau which allowed sanctuary in the island chain. England abolished the slave trade in 1807, and the Emancipation Act of 1833 formally abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. 

        By contrast, slavery continued in Cuba until abolished by royal decree on Oct. 7, 1886, making the Bahamas the destination of choice for fleeing slaves in Florida and southern Georgia.

        Several inland freedom trails converged east of Lake Okeechobee, and continued along the coastline south of the Palm Beaches to Key Biscayne. African-American slaves were joined at Cape Florida by Black Seminoles - former slaves adopted into the Seminole nation, where they created their own unique culture.

        Faced with deportations during and after the Seminole Wars, about 200 Black Seminoles used skills acquired from the Indians to build dugout canoes capable of completing the voyage across the Florida Straits. They founded their own settlement on Andros Island.

        The exact number of African-Americans that followed the Saltwater Railroad to the Bahamas is unknown. One estimate is as high as 6,000, which would have been 10 percent of the slave population in Florida.

        Whether escaping slavery in Florida by Bahamian fishing boats or dugout canoes, they had to survive tropical storms, strong currents in the Gulf Stream, coastal pirates and slave hunters during voyages of more than 100 miles at sea.

        The U.S. and Florida governments conducted a 40-year campaign to capture fleeing slaves and Black Seminoles between 1821-61. The State of Florida offered a $350 reward for the return of "lost property". Florida also financed a network of "patrollers" to track fugitive slaves.

        The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required the return of slaves to their southern owners, even in free states. The Act of Congress also made the federal government responsble for finding, returning, and the punishment in court of escaped slaves.

        Abolitionist Jonathan Walker learned the hard way that U.S. Navy warships, based in Key West, actively patroled the southeast coast of Florida for vessels carrying fugitive slaves along the Saltwater Railroad.

'The Man with a Branded Hand'

        Captain Jonathan Walker (1799 - 1878) of Harwich, MA, was the best known of the abolitionists operating the Southern Underground Railroad. He moved to Pensacola to continue his career and observed first-hand the injustice of slavery in Florida.

        In his "Memoir," Walker wrote that he "came to the conclusion that slavery was evil and only evil." He believed he had a divine obligation to help free men from the "national poison" of slavery.

        Captain Walker hid seven fugitive slaves in his small trading vessel and sailed from Pensacola in 1844, bound for a safe harbor in the Bahamas.

        While in the Florida Straits, he became ill and incapacitated. His vessel was discovered after 14 days at sea by a passing U.S. sloop searching for shipwrecks along the southeast coast of Florida.

        Walker and his passengers were taken to Key West. Local authorities determined he would be returned to Pensacola to face charges. He was chained to the hull of the "U.S.S General Taylor" and transported back to his home port.

        Once in Pensacola, he was arrested, charged and convicted by a Florida jury of "aiding and inducing two slaves to run away, and stealing two others." As part of Walker's punishment, U.S. Marshal Eben Dorr ordered him tied to a pillory in Pensacola and branded with a hot iron on his hand with the letters "S.S." - an acronym for "slave stealer".

        Walker was imprisoned in Florida for 11 months in solitary confinement until abolitionists from across the country were able to gather funds to pay his $600 fine. After his release, he moved to Michigan, where he continued his work as an abolitionist and guest lecturer.

        Walker's plight gained national fame when poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about his ordeal in Florida titled "The Man with a Branded Hand" in 1846.

         On May 9, 1862, Union Major Gen. David D. Hunter, an abolitionist officer, issued "General Order No. 11" freeing 900,000 African-American slaves within the jurisdiction of his Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. His order was rescinded and superseded by President Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" on Sept. 22, 1862.

        The Civil War marked the end of the 40-year Saltwater Railroad. General Hunter also began enlisting black volunteers in the Union Army. Slavery's days were numbered in Florida.     

(c.) Davidsson. 2021.   

*NOTE: See also "The Palm Beaches During Reconstruction: 1865-76" below. Additional articles are archived in Older Posts.

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Palm Beaches During 'Reconstruction': 1865-76

 By Bob Davidsson

        During Florida's "Reconstruction" period (1865-76), the area later known as the Palm Beaches was in the geographic center of a proposed terrritorial homeland for former African slaves called "New Liberia," and a failed transporation network extending from the Georgia border to South America.

        Colonel Thomas W. Osborn was the commanding officer of Battery D, First Regiment, New York Light Artillery, during the Civil War. As fate would have it, he served as the chief artillery officer under Gen. Oliver Otis Howard at the Battle of Gettysburg.

       General Howard, known as the "Praying General," appraised his artillery commander as "a quiet unobstrusive officer of quick decison and pure life."

       Howard remembered Osborn's qualities when he became commissioner of the U.S. Freedmen's Bureau from 1865 until it was disbanded in 1872. He selected Osborn as his assistant commissioner of "Freedmen, Refugees and Abandoned Lands in Florida" in September 1865.

        Osborn devised an ambitious plan for the resettlement of Freedmen (emancipated black slaves) in South Florida. It was nothing less than the establishment of a "New Liberia" based on the model of the former U.S. colony created for African-Americans by President James Monroe in 1820.

        Osborn presented his proposal to General Howard in January 1866. He recommended the U.S. buy the entire Florida peninsula below the 28th parallel and organize a new territory to be homesteaded by former slaves.

       "We shall give (the land) a territorial organization of government," he advocated. "The lands shall be held exclusively as homesteads for freedpeople."

        In his written proposal, Osborn estimated there were 14,400 square miles of arable land that could sustain 115,200 farm families if each homestead was limted to 80 acres. He predicted 400 new townships could be created, which would be self-supporting through the production of tropical agricultural crops.

        Osborn reported "a home of 80 acres" for each family would allow the resettlement of a total population of 595,000 "freedpeople" on new homesteads in South Florida.

        The land south of the 28th parallel included the boundaries for Dade County, redrawn after the Civil War. The thinly settled county, including the Palm Beaches, had a total population of just 85 settlers by 1870.

        Osborn organized an expedition, led by Lt. Col George Thompson and Freedmen's Bureau special agent William Gleason, to explore and report on the economic potential of Dade County for his model settlement. Both men were impressed with South Florida.

        After a two-month stay in Dade County, Lt. Col. Thompson wrote, "The most promising agricultural lands lay along the Everglades... If the government conducted drainage it would develope into the garden spot of the United States."

        In the end it was the high cost of drainage and climate concerns that doomed the project. Freedmen's Bureau resettlement efforts would focus on northern Florida instead.

        In place of a territorial homeland south of the 28th parallel, General Howard and Congress supported the "Southern Homestead Act of 1866," opening 19 million acres of federal lands in Florida for use by Freedmen and other Civil War refugees. The Freedmen's Bureau opened land offices to assist the new homesteaders.

        Freedmen acquired deeds for 32,000 acres of land  by October 1866. One year later, they secured 2,000 homesteads totaling 160,960 acres, and by the year 1870 there were 9,000 African-American landowners in Florida, more than any other public-lands state during Reconstruction.

        Palm Beach County pioneers Samuel and Fannie A. James were among the former slaves that became homesteaders in Dade County. They secured a 186-acre section of land in what would later include downtown Lake Worth Beach.

        On Nov. 15, 1865, Osborn also issued a written circular ordering that Freedmen were allowed to testify in Florida courts, and restricting the use of corporal punishment - including scourging with a whip. Bureau officials supervised state courts until a new civilian government was estabished in Florida in 1868.

        In a May 1866 tribute to Osborn's service with the Freedmen's Bureau, the editor of the "Tallahassee Floridian" wrote, "We doubt whether the duties of the Bureau could have been administered by anyone more acceptably, alike to the blacks and the whites, than they have been by Colonel Osborn."

        As for special agent Gleason, the Wisconsin native remained in Dade County, where he established a Republican Party power base from 1866-76 during Florida's Reconstruction. He was elected lieutenant governor of Florida in 1868 and supported Osborn's future political and business ambitions.

        Osborn was elected as a delegate in 1868 to the Florida State Constitutional Convention held in Tallahassee. The convention's goal was to reestablish civilian rule in Florida in compliance with federal requirements for readmittance to the Union.

        Between May 1865 and 1868, Florida was under military control as a defeated supporter of the Confederacy. The "Reconstruction Act of 1866" established military rule over southern states until new civilian governments could be formed to ratify the 14th Amendment (African-American citizenship) and 15th Amendment (voting rights).

        After Florida was readmitted to the Union on July 4, 1868, Osborn obtained the support of  Republicans, Union Democrats and newly enfranchised Freedmen voters to win election to the U.S. Senate.

        However, once elected, Senator Osborn's commitment to public service became secondary to the twin ambitions of political power and economic gain.

        He became head of the infamous "Osborn Ring" of northern investors and carpetbaggers seeking quick profits in Florida during the federally mandated Reconstruction period.  His pet project was the building of a "Great Southern Railway" from the Georgia border south to Cape Sable with a shipping network to South America.

The 'Great Southern Railway': A Rail to Nowhere

        Senator Osborn lobbied Congress for land grants and federal subsidies to finance the project while at the same time purchasing stock in the company. The Great Southern Railway was incorporated by a special act of the Florida Legislature  on Feb. 19, 1870.

        The Legislature granted the corporation "special powers to construct and operate a railroad from the St. Mary's River, on the northern border of Florida, to the most southerly available harbor of the state, and to own and operate in connection with the rail, and as an integral part of the company's Line, steamships and other sea-going vessels to Cuba and the West Indies Islands and South America."

        The company stockholders, including Senator Osborn and political ally Lt. Gov. Gleason, selected the senator's older brother, the Rev. Abraham Coles Osborn, as president of the Great Southern Railway.

        This act of political and corporate family incest inspired an editorial writer for the  "Brooklyn Eagle"  to write, "It seems (Rev. Osborn) spent more time in the secular world than the religious. He was the chaplain to the wealthy, and was married twice, both women of wealthy families."

        The State of Florida granted the railroad a right-of-way of 200 feet of land from the rail line, and the "same number of lands known as swamp and overflow" when the railway passed through the Palm Beaches and Dade County.

        The Great Southern Railway was authorized to raise $10 million in stock sales. To attract investors, the new railroad company promised "in 10 years each investor would earn $1 million."

        His lobbying efforts and political arm-twisting in Congress on the behalf of the Great Southern Railway earned Senator Osborn the nickname of "Railroad Tommy". In April 1871, one Washington, D.C. newspaper recorded his unethical congressional activities as "an extraordinary development of fraud."

        The 1874 "Maps of Florida," published by Columbus Drew of Jacksonville, traced the projected route of the unbuilt Great Southern Railway from the Georgia border, passing south through central Florida, then turning southeast from Lake Okeechobee to a destination near Turkey Point in southern Dade County.

        Its path through the future Palm Beach County would have placed the proposed rail along the Beeline Highway (S.R. 710), then turning south and following the secondary ridge line used by the U.S. Army to clear the "Military Trail" in 1838. It would have passed a short distance west of Lake Osborne and the county's chain of lakes.

       Only 84 miles of new rail tracks were laid during the entire 10-year period of the state's Reconstruction. The Great Southern Railway became a failed business venture due to a lack of investors.

        The Great Southern Railway Company remained inactive for 100 years until it was "dissolved by proclamation" by the Florida Division of Corporations on Oct. 21, 1974.

        In a rare example of political contriteness, Senator Osborn made the following confession in a May 25, 1871 letter to correspondent Enfant Perdue: "As for myself, I am truly sorry I had anything to do with it (the railroad), for even the boot-blacks at the Capitol, with an indifference to senatorial dignity approaching nearly to the sublime, have dubbed me Railroad Tommy."

       Senator Osborn was not nominated by his party to run for a second term in the U.S. Senate. He returned to New York City where he continued his career in government service. The Rev. Abraham Osborn also left Florida and became a noted theologian in New Jersey.

        When his bachelor brother died in 1898, the Rev. Osborn made arrangements for his burial in the family plot at the Hillside Cemetery in North Adams, N.J.                          

(c.) Davidsson. 2021.   

*NOTE: Article also was reprinted in the Feb. 9, 2021 editions of the Belle Glade & Pahokee Sun. Additional articles below and archived in Older Posts.